Book review: ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,’ by Susan Cain
February 26, 2016
The world is a loud place, with everyone jockeying for attention. News and information bombard us 24/7, politicians are over the top in their presentation and rhetoric and the loudest talkers are often the most admired. But a good third to a half of the world's population is of a more reserved nature, introverted people who prefer listening to talking.
Self-described introvert Susan Cain has assembled a compelling argument for the value of quiet people within a well-balanced society. In her very engaging book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking," Cain begins her careful analysis with a nod to a nationally revered introvert Rosa Parks, who, through quiet strength and defiance, galvanized the civil rights movement. Her calm resolve made the furor that followed her brave defiance even more resonant.
Introverts, such as Parks — and like Cain herself — have found themselves, in our modern and hectic world, to be sidelined or pressured to go through most of their lives playing the extrovert game. Cain defines the norm as the "extrovert ideal, an omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight." Exceptions to that accepted extroverted success story norm are the genius geeks, many of whom, unsurprisingly, shine behind a keyboard and a circuit panel, rather than on a stage.
Charisma can't be quiet
Cain says there is an assumption that charisma cannot be quiet, and talking a lot and loudly is a plus, with only the loud and the outgoing getting things done. Her aim, in part, with her book is to reveal the many greats in history who have succeeded, not in spite of their introversion but because of it. As Cain repeatedly emphasizes, the list of famous introverts includes a diverse range of individuals. Albert Einstein, Dr. Seuss, Steven Spielberg and J.K. Rowling, among many others, are put up as some of the examples of people who accomplished what they did because of their quiet and attentive natures.
With her book, Cain hopes to give introverts permission to tackle the world on their own terms. She begins her analysis with a clear historical perspective of the cultural shift that has perpetuated the notion of the "Extrovert Ideal." The 20th century marked the transition from what she calls a "culture of character to a culture of personality." It was once deemed essential for success to be a "serious, disciplined and honorable" individual. Now, she says, a path to prosperity includes an emphasis on being a performer.
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During the Industrial Revolution, people went from being known by their reputations to being known by their personas. The shift took place in schools, as well. Being a studious intellectual was no longer the ideal; being "well-rounded" and social became the expectation. With this rise in popularity-driven success came a correlating rise in anxiety and stress, and behind that came a rise in drug use, both legal and otherwise.
The very notion of American superiority is rooted in the idea that this country was built on the backs of men who chose to speak out and start a revolution. In trying to tamp down the singularities of personalities found in introverts, a notion of mindless conformity took over, and the result is the modern world of shallowly rooted entertainment. Many personality traits once considered perfectly normal are now seen as disorders.
Cain, though, says there is a crucial place in this modern mayhem for a quiet, measured and thoughtful voice. There is something flawed in a system where people follow the loudest person spewing misinformation rather than someone speaking accuracies quietly. She sites many examples, even in corporate America, where a quiet assertiveness is more effective than a bombastic ego.
In an evolutionary sense, the presence of highly sensitive individuals in a group serve to alert the group as a whole to dangers that might impact their chances of survival. Introverts can be seen as canaries in the coalmines, but often-lonely ones, who can't understand why others can't see what they do. The key is balance, Cain says. "If our entire population consisted of warriors, there would be no one to notice, let alone battle, potentially deadly but far quieter threats like viral disease or climate change."
The main takeaway of Cain's book and the key to a successful society, of course, is for the world to embrace all people of all personalities, for ultimately, we are all in this together.